A Guide to Driving a Vehicle in Tehran

Iranians are a charming and most friendly people in nearly all circumstances, but fun stops when the serious business of moving from place to place is involved. As soon as your average Tehrani – most likely this is true for other Iranian cities, albeit to a lesser extent due to simply less traffic – steps into his car, slams shut the driver’s door and starts the motor, war is declared. Here are a number of ground rules for Tehran’s traffic, useful for the novice as well as the advanced foreign vehicle conductor:
Ground Rule #1: It’s all about survival, and possibly arrival. Survival, however, comes first. Don’t ever forget this.

Ground Rule #2: Never give in. Or always. Either strategy might save your life, but for sure secures a space in between the sheets of metal surrounding. Either you arrive slightly earlier, with a feeling of victory and considerable injection of adrenaline; or you arrive much much later, with all your nerves intact but most likely exhausted and overtired (be prepared to spend your time in traffic from anything between 10 minutes and eight hours – for the same distance, mind you. It all depends on the Islamic holidays, time of departure, and: degree of luck).

Ground Rule #3: Tehran’s streets have a lot of space. It’s all around you, although you might not notice it immediately, given that the drivers to your left and right have driven their cars so close to yours that you could touch their windscreen wipers without much moving your body. This space opens up at the most unexpected moments. If we haven’t mentioned it yet, here is the place for it: never expect anything, or rather: expect everything to happen. It comes down to the same – drive at every moment as if you have just been released onto the streets with your new driving license. Never relax – there is still time to do this when you are back at home in 10 minutes or eight hours (see above), with a cold 0% beer in your sweaty hands.

To get back to the issue of space: when there is some space opening up in front of you, or to your side – use it. Drive into it. Overtake. Squeeze through. How much of this you are willing to do depends on how daring and experienced you are, but rest assured: if you don’t do it, somebody else will, and you will have added another ten minutes to your driving (standing) time.

Ground Rule #4: However, space can also be dangerous. This brings us to the eternal problem: parking. Not only your parking, but the parking of others. First of all, Tehrani drivers recognize two ways of parking: long-term and interim. Long-term might, but does not have to, imply that a car is standing around somewhere in town, perhaps even on the side of the road and thus out of the way if you are lucky, with or without a driver in it, for a longer period of time. Interim, however, is more or less the same but you can never be sure when the driver will move the car into any arbitrary direction. Come to think of it, there is actually no distinction; consider every car a potential danger that could move into your direction whenever you least expect it, “parked” or not.

Ground Rule #5: Another aspect to the theme “space” is presented by the challenge of overtaking one another. First of all, you do not want to overtake anyone in Tehran’s traffic. Rather, you permanently HAVE TO. If you do not, you risk getting stuck forever behind a silver 1942 Peykan with no doors, whose driver is blind and has lost his license eight years before the Revolution. Secondly, overtaking is also good sport. You will notice this when you for once pass the time agreeably cruising at perfect altitude and speed across the Hemmat highway, no visible obstacles ahead or behind you, and you STILL get overtaken by a mental BMW driver who not only drives like a Middle Eastern, unshaven version of Michael Schumacher but also tries to look like him, sun glasses and all. (If you are lucky, he will overtake you on the left, but don’t bet on this.)

So do not fail to overtake. There is always room to the left, and if there isn’t, learn from your mistakes and starting using the right. With time you will learn how to squeeze through the tightest spaces and develop just enough speed to pass by before the moderately alarmed driver ahead of you reaches for the headlights switch to flash you. There are reports that the police is on the lookout for illicit overtaking, but these are not corroborated by many and are most likely a hoax, intended to frighten the fearful passive driver, from abroad or not.

Ground Rule #6: This nicely brings us to the use of the lights on your car. As you might have noticed, there are several – front headlights, fog lights, standing lights – depending on how much you have dished out for your vehicle. Let us first establish that in Tehrani traffic none of these are of any use, day or night. Most drivers spend all their life in their car and have never found out where the light switches are. Rumour has it that the manual delivered with new Iranian cars – yes, Iran produces its own range of vehicles (the said Peykans), and even exports them! – do not even mention where the light switches are. After all, one can perfectly well get along without them on a normal day (or night), although we are not sure if the survival rate is as high among non-users as among users.

Should you, the Western driver, be tempted to follow EU rules and keep the headlights on during daylight – provided you found the switch – be aware: Iranian drivers do not take well to this practice. At best, you are flashed by every second car because their drivers think that you MUST have forgotten to switch them off. While you do not have to fear any aggressive moves, you might be told off because you are clearly blinding the oncoming traffic with your aggressive and entirely useless bad habit. On the other hand, other light combinations might be acceptable – fog lights at night – but only fog nights! – standing lights when driving, full beam at any time, or even a jolly combination of full beam with standing lights and all indicators flashing, to show that you have a sense of humour AND are trying to reverse out of a motorway entrance in full speed. Use your imagination and try out all the various combinations. Don’t forget to note down the reactions of the various citizens you will encounter during your drive – pedestrians, police on motorbikes, men pushing wooden carts across the city highways, little children ambling between the cars waiting for the red lights to change – everyone has something to say, potentially.

Ground Rule #7: Indicators. What are they good for? Oh so often we hear this question being asked. The truth is, for nothing. They are happy-making enough, for sure, with their jolly golden colours on all four corners of your car, and if you are in distress because, say, you want to drive backwards up a one-way street in the wrong direction, they are more visible than the normal full beam you use in such instances when going forwards. But apart from that, what do you need them for? We don’t know. Avoid them if possible – perhaps they are dangerous.

Ground Rule #8: As mentioned above, there are other persons involved in your daily traffic. Some of them are pedestrians. That means that they are not using wheels but legs to propel themselves forward. They are nearly as dangerous as indicators – first of all, none of them will stick to pavements if they can avoid it. Pavements are evil and mostly too narrow, anyway. So the only other option is to walk on the street, in any direction: towards you, away from you, across it, from left to right and in reverse. They can be of any age – toddlers and most senior citizens on wheelchairs included. Why are they dangerous? Because they hamper your moves, take up valuable space (as per above) and slow you down. As a Western driver, you also want to avoid hitting them because of moral reasons, but it is generally accepted that hitting any individual in Tehrani traffic just causes an enormous amount of paperwork, so better avoid it. There is only one general rule that applies – whoever looks first, looses. So the best strategy is to develop a sixth sense combined with a habit to observe pedestrians from the corner of the eye, so you know what they will do, but you yourself have to do nothing. You will notice that in the opportune moment they will saunter away on non-existing pavements, disappear between cars, jump into each other’s laps or simply vanish into thin air when you approach. Always works.

Obviously, it might be advisable to just simply NOT do this. First of all, you are presumably a driver with skills honed on Western motor-ways, which should give you a certain amount of experience coupled with a sense of compassion for other participants in your daily traffic encounters. Secondly, you are probably a foreigner in Iran and want to set a good example. Thirdly, every now and then you find yourself being a pedestrian, and wish to survive as well. And finally, the moral considerations rank supreme, so it IS indeed better to pay attention to pedestrians and other participants in Tehran’s daily traffic. However, build in some extra hours to reach your destination.

Ground Rule #9: Wherever you want to go in Tehran, there is no way to avoid motor-ways. They criss-cross the city and, unlike public transport, reach every remote corner of the capital. As it is impossible in most parts of Tehran to just nip out from the office and go to the Italian next door, or buy some flowers, or take out a DVD, or get some fresh croissants, you will have to hop into your car and drive the few kilometers to the locations where these items are being made available. Just like Los Angeles, really.

That’s where the fun starts. After at most 200 meters you will probably hit the first traffic jam. Some three hours later you will perhaps have made it to the entrance of the next motor-way which leads you past the, say, bakery where you want to get your croissants. It is most likely entirely clogged up – the motor-way, not the bakery. So you watch what’s happening around you, while inching forward at 0.3 meters/hour. There are, for instance, several lanes on the ground, perhaps with coloured lines to separate them from each other. That would indicate a, say, four-lane motor-way. In reality, interestingly, it is a nine-lane highway, with cars slaloming in-between to find a better space. Then, you will see about one of the 16 million Tehranis trying to get out the next exit to re-gain AoS (Area-of-Sanity) outside of the motor-way – all at once.

Most likely, you will be bumped from behind by some indistinguishable ugly vehicle whose driver will wave a friendly hand towards you. Wave back! Try not to run over the motorcycle that is weaseling into the 2.5 cm space in-between the bumper of your car and the one ahead of you. The gentleman does not have a helmet on but his whole family and groceries for a month on his two-wheeler, plus a pizza he needs to deliver to Isfahan or somewhere, just like the 2,000 other motorcyclists around you.

Now, where does the Rule come in. I can’t really say – basically, it’s trying to keep calm, stay in the car at all circumstances, avoid hectic maneuvers and listen to some cool music, if possible. If you have a DVD-player in the car, this might be the time to cast a furtive glance at it, every 0.2 seconds when you are NOT driving or breaking. Have fun!

Ground Rule #10: I could go on about this, but let’s end this happy note with some words on our friends, the Red Lights. Tehran is full of them, and they are nearly all happily flashing. Flashing means: watch out. If they are yellow and are also flashing, they mean: watch out. Basically, always watch out. If you DO encounter a Red Light that is NOT flashing but just there, red and all, then it means: stop. Not that everyone around you would do this – turning right is generally accepted and happily done in all circumstances, mostly by drivers who for whatever reason decided to approach the Red Light in the left-most lane and suddenly changed their mind. Everyone understands this and so this driver is usually found perpendicular to all traffic, trying to cross a five-lane avenue in front of a Red Light. Amusing indeed, and not infrequent at all.

Most Red Lights feature also a counter on the other side of the junction. They come in very handy for the waiting clientèle, since it is most relaxing to know that one only has 280 seconds to wait before the Red Light will change to Green (or Red Flashing). Except that the counter usually stops at 14, for an unclear amount of additional minutes. Or the contrary happens – you just glance for a fraction of a second at your stereo to forward to the next song, and pop: suddenly 158 has miraculously turned into 4. I always like to imagine that there is a little man somewhere in Tehran Traffic Headquarters sitting in front of hundreds of TV screens, chuckling to himself when stopping or forwarding the clock and watching drivers frantically getting into first gear. “Omid,” he would say to his friend from the next shift, “I just had the clock count backwards on Bahonar Avenue and you know what happened? Some moron in a white Toyota went berserk and crashed into five other Toyotas! Isn’t that FUNNY?”

First prepared in February 2008, 
after several months of painful self-experimentation